If one were to step into the boots of Dimitar Berbatov, the scene would perhaps play out like something from Inception; players sprint at walking pace, their faces contorted with exertion, each bead of sweat glistening in the sun. The crowd dulls to a protracted drone, almost imperceptible. Hard-work and labour become immaterial. In this boundless dream, only the ball matters.
Berbatov would survey this scene inquisitively, walking amongst these sluggish figures with a distinct sense of power, a god-like purpose only he commands. The ball would not have even arrived at his feet before the phase of play has taken shape in his mind. Receiving the ball would act as the trigger, and when he inevitably cushions it perfectly and begins his mazy descent, the crowd would roar into audibility, the tackles would fly in, and the world would start turning once more.
This was both his gift and his curse. Berbatov’s tendency to wander around the pitch like some drugged anthropoid has led many to the conclusion that his laziness outweighs his ability – this is but a facade, a disguise to conceal his effortless, and frankly, unquestionable brilliance.
A player like Berbatov will almost inevitably warrant admiration and criticism in equal measure. He is a crowd-pleaser on an almost unrivalled level, even having a religion satirically named after him by some love-struck fan – “Berbathlicism” – in devotion of “a player who plays the beautiful game like no other”. Yet on the other end of the spectrum, the Bulgarian has been widely panned for his alleged idle disinterest in games. Capable of the sublime, oh yes, but equally capable of 90 minutes of blasé anonymity, strutting about the pitch utterly absorbed in his impersonation of Vincent Corleone from The Godfather trilogy.
Berbatov’s uncanny ability to evoke such contrasts of feeling has always haunted him. He joined Bulgarian giants CSKA Sofia aged 17 but despite an impressive scoring record, suddenly lost the support of his childhood club following a dismal performance against arch-rivals Levski Sofia. Embroiled in conflict with the supporters, Berbatov was understandably distraught; the club he had grown up adoring had pointed a single accusatory finger his way. It was, according to his mother, “maybe the worst moment of his career”.
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This dejection was further exacerbated when, in a remarkable story that would not look out of place in a Hollywood thriller, the youngster was kidnapped by the Bulgarian mafia. The man behind the kidnapping was Georgi Iliev, the owner of Bulgarian side Lokomotiv Plovdiv. His motivation was simple – intimidate the youngster, whose talents were quite apparent, into joining his club. Though Berbatov’s father resolved the situation, the younger felt he had been, even at this early stage, banished from Bulgaria.
So with a heavy heart, Berbatov departed his beloved homeland for pastures new. Impressed by his goalscoring exploits for CSKA, Bayer Leverkusen came calling. This was to prove a decisive move. Involvement at the highest European level – including a Champions League final against Real Madrid in 2002 – exposed his fantastic talent. All across the globe, Berbatov magicked his way into the minds of top managers.
Yet despite interest from Liverpool, Berbatov joined Tottenham Hotspur in the summer of 2006. The Bulgarian quickly established himself as the focal point of the side in a potent duo alongside Robbie Keane, going on to hit 46 goals in his two seasons at the club. His influence transcended the numerical; the Spurs fans had struck up an affinity with Berbatov, mesmerised by his technical virtuosity.
Too long had the Spurs faithful endured the dour. It is no surprise, then, that Berbatov’s elegance and unadulterated genius came to be revered. Would he be the man to spearhead entry into Champions League football? A leaky defence prevented that particular outcome, but this failure hardly quelled the admiration of the fans.
Berbatov had reignited a ‘true’ form of football at Tottenham with a slick, attractive style which bred hope again. Such was his impact, that his departure to Manchester United in the summer of 2008 left an irreplaceable void to fill. It would prove costly, as the next season Spurs scored a paltry 45 goals.
But for Berbatov, the future was bright. Sir Alex Ferguson, so dogged in his pursuit of the Bulgarian, had finally captured his man – £30 million was the cost, admittedly a tremendous figure at the time. As Ferguson explains in his autobiography, Berbatov “displayed the ability of Eric Cantona or Teddy Sheringham: not lightning quick, but he could lift his head and make a creative pass”. This was what set him apart from Wayne Rooney and Carlos Tevez and, in Ferguson’s eyes, what justified this substantial transfer fee.
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This singular eccentricity would also prove to be his downfall. As Ferguson began to implement a quicker style of play following the 2011 Champions League final defeat to Barcelona – a game in which Berbatov was left entirely out of the squad – the Bulgarian’s role became increasingly redundant. Berbatov believed this was due to the team having “no time for intellectual football, for thinking of combinations and the nice pass”.
Ferguson was inclined to agree: “Because we functioned at a certain speed, he was not really tuned into it. He was not that type of quick-reflex player.” His tendency to walk after a turnover of possession also highlighted that he was unsuited to the high-intensity tactics that Ferguson wished to employ.
To focus on the manner of Berbatov’s departure, however, would be to ignore the sublime moments of class he consistently produced. Take his third goal in the 7-1 drubbing of Blackburn; picking the ball up just outside his own penalty area, he played a tight interchange of passes with Patrice Evra, before opening his body and spraying a delectable pass, perfectly weighted, into the onrushing path of the advanced Nani.
From his own box, Berbatov had initiated a swift counter-attack virtually single-handedly. As he sauntered into Blackburn’s box, he finished the move he had so beautifully started, curling the ball into the top left corner. It was definitive Berbatov and a pure delight to watch unfold – total football at its most glorious.
But even whilst displaying talent on a par with – and in excess of – the greatest players of Manchester United’s illustrious history, Berbatov lacked, in Ferguson’s own words, that “peacock quality” which only legends of the game can make claim to – that unshakeable self-belief in one’s own ability. This is why the likes of Eric Cantona are written quite indisputably into the club’s folklore, and why Berbatov, for all his technical wizardry, can associate his Manchester United career with one word – unfulfillment.
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Nevertheless, his statistics at United, though in his eyes a secondary concern, were not unimpressive by any means; 57 goals in his four seasons at the club and joint top scorer in the 2010/11 season alongside Tevez. It was the lacklustre displays he sometimes produced which, in many minds, rendered him something of a disappointment.
After playing for arguably the biggest club in world football, it came as something of a surprise when he joined Fulham, despite interest from Juventus and Fiorentina. Again under the stewardship of Martin Jol, the manager utilised Berbatov, as he had done so at Spurs, as the main man. He was the superstar once more.
Whilst at Fulham, Jol summarised Berbatov’s legendary first touch perfectly. “Everything he seemed to pluck out of the sky, everything seemed to die on his toe.” The very ball was servile to his will. Indeed, there are countless compilations of Berbatov’s stunning ball control circulating the internet – of the ball being driven towards him at a frightening pace and somehow coming to a rest at his feet. Creatively, Berbatov offered so much more than goals.
After two seasons at Fulham, fleeting stints at Monaco and PAOK followed. Berbatov now finds himself at Kerala Blasters of the Indian Super League, reunited with René Meulensteen whom he worked under at both Manchester United and Fulham. It seems likely that, aged 36, this may prove to be his last season. His glorious reign will soon be over.
Dimitar Berbatov cannot be defined by the teams in which he played, or by the impact he made upon these teams. Instead, he must be appreciated for his individualism and his resolute unorthodoxy. Some would suggest arrogance or laziness, but certainly an untainted love for attractive football, the inch-perfect pass or the precise, exquisite finish – these are what he must be defined by, not by his nonchalant rejection of the industrious English game.
It’s pertinent to reflect on something he once said: “You have to be gentle with the ball like you are gentle with a woman.” Remember him by this, as he ought to be remembered; the embodiment of the beautiful game in its most radiant form.
By Euan Rice-Coates @euanricecoates